What Is the Learning Curve? The Science of Boosting Knowledge Retention

The phrase “practice makes perfect” is ubiquitous today, but where does it come from? There’s a rich history behind the phrase: we didn’t always know what we do now about the science of memory and how people learn best.

At the center of the story is German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who discovered fundamental learning principles like the learning curve, the forgetting curve, the spacing effect, and many others.

In particular, the learning curve is a concept that comes up in L&D all of the time—but what does it really mean? And how can companies leverage the learning curve to build more effective learning experiences? Let’s take a closer look.

The history of the learning curve

In 1885, Ebbinghaus discovered the phenomenon we now know as the learning curve. The simplest explanation of Ebbinghaus’s findings is that practice really does make perfect.

Ebbinghaus originally set out to understand why new information that we learn tends to fade away over a period of time. He called it the forgetting curve and created graphs to represent the relationship between time and retention.

Here’s how his experiments worked. Using himself as the subject, Ebbinghaus ran a series of tests to better understand how memory works and how long people are capable of retaining new information.

For years, he repeated the experiments: studying and memorizing series of words (“nonsense syllables” with no prior meaning) and testing his ability to recall and recite them back.

The forgetting curve was clear right away, but he also discovered a way to forget less: when he rehearsed and repeated the series of words over and over again, he was more likely to remember them. But there was a spacing effect at play too—Ebbinghaus found that practicing in intervals was more effective than rehearsing in one long stretch. Translation: cramming for an exam almost never works.

Ebbinghaus’s findings were ground-breaking. Up until his work, no one had performed experiments to really understand how human memory works.

The famous graph

The learning curve is often seen as a graphical representation where experience (time, trials, etc.) is on the x-axis and learning (performance, knowledge, etc.) is on the y-axis, emphasizing the idea that learning improves with experience. The learning curve shows that just twenty minutes after learning something new, retention may drop by 60 percent. One day after learning, it drops to 30 percent and by the time a week passes, learners may only retain 25 percent of what they learned.

What the learning curve means for L&D

Statistics like these can be a little scary for learning professionals. You’ve invested time and resources into your training—the last thing you want is for learners to forget the majority of it one week later. So, how can we reinforce learning effectively so that it truly sticks?

Think back to Ebbinghaus’s experiments. He remedied the forgetting curve by reciting and rehearsing over and over again in strategically spaced intervals. Adopt this approach for your own training. Instead of a one-and-done approach, an ongoing, strategic learning program will help learners recall and retain new information for the long haul.  

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Two strategies for implementing the learning curve

1. Use interactions to boost learner retention

Remember, practice makes perfect. Interactions are a meaningful way to get learners to apply what they’ve learned and repeatedly practice it without sacrificing engagement. This is especially important for adult learners, who often absorb information more readily when there is a reality-based application. We learn best by doing, just as Ebbinghaus discovered.

You can create engaging eLearning interactions by using flashcards, quizzes, accordions, or tabs. Scenario-based learning is another way to bring new information to life and mimic the real world. Scenarios give learners an opportunity to practice and repeat what they’ve learned, plus receive immediate feedback on their progress. For ILT or VILT, roleplay exercises are powerful learning opportunities for boosting retention.

2. Reinforce new information with blended learning

Still relying on one-off training events to upskill your team members? The learning curve tells us that the more learners practice and repeat new knowledge, the more they’ll retain. Take a look at your current learning strategy. Where are there opportunities to build in refresher training sessions to reinforce learning?

It’s more attainable than you might think. Consider a blended learning approach, where instructor-led training is enhanced by eLearning with practice questions, scenario-based learning, or video roleplay assignments. This gets your learners to spend more time with new information, forces them to routinely recall it, and will help keep them on the learning curve.

Learning is a process

A one-and-done approach to learning just won’t work. Ebbinghaus proved it over one hundred years ago, but we still see this approach to learning far too often today. The learning curve is an important reminder that learning is a process.

Help your learners retain new information by creating many opportunities to practice what they’ve learned. When you invest the time into getting new knowledge to last, you can achieve the lasting behavior change and positive impact you’re after.

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